Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: secularization (page 1 of 1)

Roberts on Taylor

My friend Adam Roberts is doing a read-through of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and I started to comment on his most recent post and then realized that I didn’t have enough room. So I’m posting my comment here. 

Adam, I think one of the weaknesses of Taylor’s book is that he doesn’t often enough remind us of the scope of his argument (and its limits). But in this case he does say, in a passage you quote, that he’s talking about a change that he believes happened after 1500. So nothing from the early history of Christianity is directly relevant to the argument.

As I read the broad sweep of his case, adding in the proper qualifiers that he sometimes forgets to add, it goes something like this:

1) The Middle Ages in Western Europe is characterized by a long process by which the Catholic Church consolidated an intellectual framework for understanding the world and humans’ place in it. We are porous selves, open to the divine and demonic alike, and the Church uniquely offers access to the former and prevents entry by the latter. By emphasizing its uniqueness, it gradually disciplines and masters much of the theological pluralism that had characterized earlier ages. (You may see this as the gaining of a valuable unity, as Catholics do, or as the imposition of spiritual totalitarianism, as Simone Weil did; but it happened anyway.) This doesn’t mean that you don’t get dissent, but dissent is dealt with

2) This understanding was disrupted by the emergence of the various movements we lump together under the category of Reformation. Great social unrest ensued, but for Taylor the significant point is that intellectual confusion ensued. “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” says Donne. “A dissociation of sensibility set in,” etc. So far, so Eliotic. 

N.B. This is where I think we get some serious slippage in Taylor, because the earlier understanding of porous selves nurtured and protected by the Church was a universal one, shared by the unlearned and the learned alike. From this point on, though, I am often confused about whether he’s describing movements among the intellectual elite or within European society as a whole. I think he has a kind of trickle-down theory, but he doesn’t account as he should for the widely varying speed of the trickling in different cultures. Sometimes he writes as if the changes he describes are happening all over Europe, when in fact they’re only happening, in a serious way anyhow, in England and the Netherlands. 

Just as he operates with an implicit trickle-down theory of intellectual change, Taylor also, I think, holds the “ideas have consequences” view of social change: that is, he treats intellectual changes as occurring within a largely intellectual causal environment, after which those ideas have social effects. I think this is wrong. I am not an economic determinist, but I do find much more persuasive those accounts that see economic and intellectual changes in a dialogical or dialectical way, as mutually interanimating — books like Dierdre McCloskey’s bourgeois trilogy or Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches. Anyway, onwards: 

3) Intellectuals respond to this disruption and dissociation by building what Taylor calls the Modern Moral Order, in which human beings are understood as (a) rational, (b) sociable, and (c) buffered selves who flourish through the pursuit of disciplined practices, social and personal, that are in principle available to all. Again, Taylor seems to see this concept trickle down from pointy-heads like Locke to the whole society of increasingly energetic bourgeois. 

4) But this Order, while workable for a while, comes to seem dull and flat, too limited in its understanding of human flourishing, too … secular. And that’s where the Nova comes in. The Nova is a series of increasingly varied ways to pry open those buffers and let the divine back in: Maybe through a Catholic retrenchment (Chateaubriand), maybe through evangelistic revival (the Methodists), maybe through quasi-mystical encounters with the natural world (Wordsworth) maybe through a high metaphysics of the Sacred Self (Rousseau) — or maybe, and you know this argument from me, through artistic experiences that allow us to have a temporary vacation from the Modern Moral Order without radically questioning it. Meanwhile, others double down on the MMO and embrace a wholly secularized world, as when Laplace’s cosmology doesn’t acknowledge God because he “had no need for that hypothesis.” 

In conclusion, sir: Taylor would respond to your post by saying that the Nova initiates an era of intellectual/religious/spiritual pluralism that (a) would have been unimaginable in the year 1500 and (b) is dramatically more pluralistic than the early Christian church because it makes public room for belief systems that have no use for Jesus at all, and maybe not for any kind of God. You rightly note as the great variety of Christian heresies — or of Christian theologies later designated as heresies — but in comparison to a world in which Wesley and Wordsworth and Bronson Alcott, Laplace and Chateaubriand and Ben Franklin, all rub shoulders, it seems to offer a relatively narrow set of options. 


Gary Dorrien:

Here is where Temple still matters as a theorist of guild socialism. In the early 1940s, both before and after he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Temple got very specific about how to democratize economic power. He was incredulous that modern democracies tolerated big private banks, lamented that Christian socialists turned away in the 1890s from the land issue, and proposed a new form of guild socialism. The banks, he argued, should be turned into utilities or socialized; otherwise the rich controlled the process of investment. God made the land for everyone, and society creates the unearned increment in the value of land; therefore the increment should go to society. Above all, though Temple took for granted that certain natural monopolies must be nationalized, the centerpiece of his proposal was an excess-profits tax payable in the form of shares to worker funds. These funds, over time, would gain democratic control over enterprises. Economic democracy, he argued, can be achieved gradually, peaceably, and on decentralized terms, without abolishing economic markets or making heroic demands on the political system.

Randall Kennedy:

The ultimatum complains that, in its view, past initiatives aimed at enlarging the number of faculty of color at Princeton have “failed” because in 2019–20 “among 814 faculty, there were 30 Black, 31 Latinx, and 0 Indigenous persons. That’s 7%.” According to the ultimatum, this “is not progress by any standard; it falls woefully short of U.S. demographics as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, which reports Black and Hispanic persons at 32% of the total population.”

The suggestion that these statistics show racial unfairness in hiring at Princeton is misleading. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, African Americans in recent years earned only around 7 percent of all doctoral degrees. In engineering it was around 4 percent. In physics around 2 percent. Care must be taken to look for talent in places other than the familiar haunts of Ivy League searches. But even when such care is taken, the resultant catch is almost invariably quite small.

The reasons behind the small numbers are familiar and heart-breaking. They include a legacy of deprivation in education, housing, employment, and health care, not to mention increased vulnerability to crime and incarceration. The perpetuation of injuries from past discrimination as well as the imposition of new wrongs cut like scythes into the ranks of racial minorities, cruelly winnowing the number who are even in the running to teach at Princeton.

The racial demographics of its faculty does not reflect a situation in which the university is putting a thumb on the scale against racial-minority candidates. To the contrary, the university is rightly putting a thumb on the scale in favor of racial-minority candidates. That the numbers remain small reflects the terrible social problems that hinder so many racial minorities before they even have a fighting chance to enter into the elite competitions from which Princeton selects its instructors. The ultimatum denies or minimizes this pipeline problem.

Peter Brown:

Many of Ambrose’s contemporaries were quietly convinced that the ills of Roman society had a supernatural origin. Many of the sharpest critics of their age were not Christians; they were pagans. For them, bad times had begun with the “national apostasy” of Constantine. The rampant avarice denounced by pagan authors was thought to go hand in hand with the spoliation of the temples and the abandonment of the old religion.

Ambrose had to answer such views. He did so by subtly secularizing the contemporary discourse on decline. He turned what many thinking persons considered a religious crisis into a crisis of social relations. We moderns tend to applaud Ambrose for the perspicacity of his diagnosis of the weaknesses of Roman society. But pagans such as Symmachus would have regarded Ambrose’s criticisms of society as mere whistling in the dark. Symmachus knew why things had gone wrong. The moment that the first fruits of the fields of Italy that had fed the Vestal Virgins for 1,200 years were withdrawn (in 382), the link between the land and the gods was broken.

Remembering David Martin

The great sociologist of religion David Martin has died: you may read an overview of his incredibly wide-ranging career, written by a former colleague, here. (I was fascinated to learn there that he wrote a so-far-unpublished book on “secularization through the lens of English poetry”!) Today I am giving thanks for his life and witness, and remembering in prayer his family: his wife Bernice and his daughter Jessica Martin — my friend, and a priest whose sermons I sometimes quote or post in toto here.

Much attention will be given, in reflections on Martin’s career, to his work on secularization, and rightly enough, given its influence. But it will be very hard for us to get our minds around the totality of that work, for what it did, above all, was complicate all previous work on secularization. And the primary way it complicated that work was by decentering the Western European account (WEA, I’ll call it) of secularization, which Western intellectuals have always had a tendency to see as the normal or expected path of change in religious practice and experience. But, as Martin wrote in his concise and accessible Forbidden Revolutions (1996), “We can observe at least four distinct trajectories in Christian cultures: Eastern Europe, Latin America, Western Europe and North America. If social differentiation is the working core of the theory of secularization, it takes at least four forms, which do not necessarily converge.”

That WEA model of secularization, Martin argues, “acts as an implicit guide and censor on what we permit ourselves to see” — and therefore obscures from us how secularization happens, if it happens at all, elsewhere. The influence of the WEA model led to it being imposed in Eastern Europe, “the guiding spirit [of] an explicit programme to enforce secularization.” To a somewhat lesser extent attempts at enforced secularization happened in certain Latin American countries as well, and Forbidden Revolutions describes how stubborn practitioners of the Christian faith were able to resist such imposition. Why that resistance took Catholic forms in Eastern Europe and Pentecostal forms in Latin America is the meat of Martin’s story.

Forbidden Revolutions is not generally thought of as one of Martin’s central works — it’s less academic and more Christian than his most celebrated texts — but I find myself thinking of it often these days, even though I only read it once, many years ago. I think perhaps it is time for me to return to it. In the meantime, thanks be to God for the life and work of David Martin. Rest eternal grant unto him, O LORD: and let light perpetual shine upon him. May he rest in peace.